With scalpel-sharp diction and splash of ideas, what often goes overlooked in William Gibson’s oeuvre is that the author may also be a master of theme. Given so much credit for minimalist writing and sensawunda science fiction, some readers become enamored by this dynamic surface and fail to gain a sense of what lies beneath, namely understated commentary on society, politics, and technology. 2010’s Spook Country, second in the so-called Blue Ant trilogy, is no exception—and may very well be the most overlooked of the overlooked.
The three strands of Spook Country’s story braid consist of Hollis Henry, former rock-n-roller turned journalist; Tito, a Chinese-Cuban living in NYC who, with his family, helps facilitate various crimes involving the latest technology, and Brown, a covert operative ostensibly associated with the US government who has been given the assignment of tailing Tito. The three unaware, a mysterious shipping container in Vancouver of unknown contents forms the point at which all their various and peculiar stories converge.
In some state of semi-irony, Spook Country is actually a piece of fiction, rather than science fiction. The story set in the handful of years post-9-11, it is the Iraq War, particularly the government’s handling of its funding, that is in the novel’s crosshairs “technologically”, that is, rather than what has been the near-future of novels past. The technology that is so often futuristic in Gibson’s novels is this time realistic. That being said, Gibson still manages to give the novel an edge that feels futuristic given the minimalist edge of his diction, but when broken down is more like Tom Clancy (in the inclusion of technology only, no door stopping tome here).
And what does Gibson accomplish thematically? A fair amount. Again, the master of deception—the details of setting, the lack of emphasis on MAJOR PLOT POINTS, the play of technology, and said convergence of characters—contrive to highlight the deeper workings of post-9-11 US government decisions and action. Fringes of the public aware as the decisions and actions were ongoing, any hope at mass awareness has since faded, leaving, once again, art as written word as a reminder to the abuses of power and the human virtues and vices that thread even the top of the hierarchy.
In the end, Spook Country may be the most subtly brilliant novel of Gibson’s already brilliant oeuvre. The author’s obsession with textures, materials, and pop art swims alongside a plotline so indirectly indicative of socio-political happenings just past that the reader doesn’t know what’s hit them until the denouement. Commentary on 21st century life in the West, it takes the complexity out of conspiracy theories while simultaneously vetting any opinion of greed or selfishness someone may have about workings at the top. Complementing the prior novel Pattern Recognition, Spook Country likewise raises questions and interest about how the final novel in the Blue Ant trilogy, Zero History, will present itself. I can’t wait.